Lenny Bruce is considered one of the most influential comedians of all time as well as a notable social critic of the mid-20th century. Yet during his troubled life he was often criticized, persecuted by the authorities, and shunned by the entertainment mainstream.
In the conservative America of the late 1950s, Bruce emerged as a leading proponent of what was called "sick humor." The term referred to comics who stepped out beyond stock jokes to poke fun at the rigid conventions of American society.
Within a few years, Bruce gained a following by skewering what he considered the underlying hypocrisy of American society. He denounced racists and bigots, and performed routines focused on societal taboos, which included sexual practices, drug and alcohol use, and specific words considered unacceptable in polite society.
His own drug use brought legal problems. And as he became famous for using forbidden language, he was often arrested for public obscenity. Ultimately, his endless legal hassles doomed his career, as clubs were dissuaded from hiring him. And when he did perform in public, he became prone to ranting onstage about being persecuted.
Lenny Bruce's legendary status developed years after his death in 1966 from a drug overdose at the age of 40.
His short and troubled life was the subject of the 1974 film, "Lenny," starring Dustin Hoffman. The film, which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture, was based on a Broadway play, which had opened in 1971. The same comedy bits which had gotten Lenny Bruce arrested in the early 1960s were prominently featured in respected works of dramatic art in the early 1970s.
The legacy of Lenny Bruce endured. Comedians such as George Carlin and Richard Pryor were considered his successors. Bob Dylan, who had seen him perform in the early 1960s, eventually wrote a song recalling a taxi ride they had shared. And, of course, numerous comedians have cited Lenny Bruce as an enduring influence.
Lenny Bruce was born as Leonard Alfred Schneider in Mineola, New York on October 13, 1925. His parents split up when he was five. His mother, born Sadie Kitchenburg, eventually became a performer, working as an emcee at strip clubs. His father, Myron "Mickey" Schneider, was a podiatrist.
As a child, Lenny was fascinated by movies and the very popular radio programs of the day. He never finished high school, but with World War II raging, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1942.
In the Navy Bruce began performing for fellow sailors. After four years of service, he obtained a discharge from the Navy by claiming to have homosexual urges. (He later regretted that, and was able to have his discharge status changed from dishonorable to honorable.)
Returning to civilian life, he began to aspire toward a show business career. For a time he took acting lessons. But with his mother performing as a comedian under the name Sally Marr, he was exposed to clubs in New York City. He got onstage one night in a club in Brooklyn, doing impressions of movie stars and telling jokes. He got some laughs. The experience got him hooked on performing and he became determined to become a professional comedian.
In the late 1940s he worked as a typical comedian of the era, doing stock jokes and performing at Catskills resorts and in nightclubs in the northeast. He tried out various stage names and eventually settled on Lenny Bruce.
In 1949 he won a contest for aspiring performers on "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts," a very popular radio program (which was also simulcast to a smaller television audience). That bit of success on a program hosted by one of the most popular entertainers in America seemed to put Bruce on the road to becoming a mainstream comedian.
Yet the Godfrey show triumph attention quickly. And Bruce spent years in the early 1950s bouncing around as a traveling comedian, often performing in strip clubs where the audience didn't really care what the opening comic had to say. He married a stripper he met on the road, and they had a daughter. The couple divorced in 1957, just before Bruce found his footing as a prominent performer of a new style of comedy.
The term "sick humor" was coined in the late 1950s and was used loosely to describe comedians who broke out of the mold of patter and banal jokes about one's mother-in-law. Mort Sahl, who gained fame as a stand-up comedian doing political satire, was the best-known of the new comedians. Sahl broke the old conventions by delivering thoughtful jokes which were not in a predictable pattern of set-up and punch-line.
Lenny Bruce, who had come up as a fast-talking ethnic New York comedian, did not entirely break away from the old conventions at first. He sprinkled his delivery with Yiddish terms that many New York comedians might have used, but he also tossed in language he had picked up from the hipster scene on the West Coast.
Clubs in California, particularly in San Francisco, were where he developed the persona that propelled him to success and, ultimately, endless controversy. With Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac gaining attention, and a small anti-establishment movement forming, Bruce would get onstage and engage in stand-up comedy that had a more free-form feel than anything else found in nightclubs.
And the targets of his humor were different. Bruce commented on race relations, skewering the segregationists of the South. He began to mock religion. And he cracked jokes which indicated a familiarity of the drug culture of the day.
His routines in the late 1950s would sound almost quaint by today's standards. But to mainstream America, which got its comedy from "I Love Lucy" or Doris Day movies, Lenny Bruce's irreverence was disturbing. A television appearance on a popular nighttime talk show hosted by Steve Allen in 1959 seemed as if it would be a big break for Bruce. Viewed today, his appearance seems tame. He comes off as something of a meek and nervous observer of American life. Yet he spoke about topics, like children sniffing glue, that was certain to offend many viewers.
Months later, appearing on a television program hosted by Playboy magazine publisher Hugh Hefner, Bruce spoke well of Steve Allen. But he poked fun at the network censors who had prevented him from performing some of his material.
The television appearances in the late 1950s underlined an essential dilemma for Lenny Bruce. As he began to achieve something close to mainstream popularity, he rebelled against it. His persona as someone in show business, and familiar with its conventions, yet actively breaking the rules, endeared him to a growing audience which was beginning to rebel against what was termed "square" America.
Success and Persecution
In the late 1950s comedy albums became popular with the public, and Lenny Bruce found countless new fans by releasing recordings of his nightclub routines. On March 9, 1959, Billboard, the leading trade magazine of the recording industry, published a brief review of a new Lenny Bruce album, "The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce," that, amid strained show-business slang, favorably compared him to a legendary cartoonist for the New Yorker magazine:
"Off-beat comic Lenny Bruce has the Charles Addams knack of getting guffaws from ghoulish topics. No subject is too sacred for his rib-tickling efforts. His odd brand of humor grows on the listener and is currently growing on nitery crowds to a degree that he's becoming a favorite at the smart spots. Album's four-color cover shot is an eye stopper and sums up Bruce's off-beatnik comedy: He's shown enjoying a picnic spread in a graveyard."
In December 1960 Lenny Bruce performed at a club in New York and received a generally positive review in the New York Times. Critic Arthur Gelb, was careful to warn readers that Bruce's act was "for adults only." Yet he favorably likened him to a "panther" who "prowls softly and bites sharply."
The New York Times review noted how peculiar Bruce's act seemed at the time:
"Although he seems at times to be doing his utmost to antagonize his audience, Mr. Bruce displays such a patent air of morality beneath his brashness that his lapses in taste are often forgivable. The question, though, is whether the kind of derisive shock therapy he administers are legitimate night-club fare, as far as the typical customer is concerned."
And, the newspaper noted that he was courting controversy:
"He often carries his theories to their naked and personal conclusions and has earned for his pains the sobriquet 'sick.' He is a ferocious man who does not believe in the sanctity of motherhood or the American Medical Association. He even has an unkind word for Smoky, the Bear. True, Smoky doesn't set forest fires, Mr. Bruce concedes. But he eats Boy Scouts for their hats."
With such prominent publicity, it appeared Lenny Bruce was positioned to be a major star. And in 1961, he even reached something of a pinnacle for a performer, playing a show at Carnegie Hall. Yet his rebellious nature led him to continue breaking boundaries. And soon his audiences often contained detectives from local vice squads looking to arrest him for using obscene language.
He was busted in various cities on charges of public obscenity, and became mired in court fights. After an arrest following a performance in New York City in 1964, a petition was circulated on his behalf. Writers and prominent intellectuals, including Norman Mailer, Robert Lowell, Lionel Trilling, Allen Ginsberg, and others signed the petition.
The support of the creative community was welcome, yet it didn't solve a major career problem: with the threat of arrest always seeming to hang over him, and local police departments determined to hassle Bruce and anyone dealing with him, nightclub owners were intimidated. His bookings dried up.
As his legal headaches multiplied, Bruce's drug use seemed to accelerate. And, when he did take the stage his performances became erratic. He could be brilliant onstage, or on some nights he could appear confused and unfunny, ranting about his court battles. What had been fresh in the late 1950s, a witty rebellion against conventional American life, descended into a sad spectacle of a paranoid and persecuted man lashing out at his antagonists.
Death and Legacy
On August 3, 1966, Lenny Bruce was discovered dead in his house in Hollywood, California. An obituary in the New York Times mentioned that as his legal problems began to mount in 1964 he had only earned $6,000 performing. Four years earlier he had earned more than $100,000 per year.
The probable cause of death was noted to be "an overdose of narcotics."
The noted record producer Phil Spector (who, decades later, would be convicted of murder) placed a memorial ad in the August 20, 1966 issue of Billboard. The text began:
"Lenny Bruce is dead. He died from an overdose of police. However, his art and what he said is still alive. No one need any longer be subjected to unfair intimidation for selling Lenny Bruce albums - Lenny can no longer point the finger of truth at anyone."
The memory of Lenny Bruce, of course, endures. Later comedians followed his lead and freely used language that once drew detectives to Bruce's shows. And his pioneering efforts to move stand-up comedy beyond trite one-liners to thoughtful commentary on important issues became part of the American mainstream.